Fifty years ago today, on August 25, 1968, eight men and women came out on Red Square to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
They held up some banners, perhaps the most famous of them (pictured) repurposing the old Polish slogan “For our freedom and yours“, originally used to protest the Tsarist empire; for this protest by Russians, the words became “For your freedom and ours”. It only took the KGB a few minutes to attack the protesters (one of whom had several teeth knocked out), break up their banners, and arrest them. One gave in to pressure to declare that she had been there by accident; the others did not. Five were put on trial and sentenced to the Gulag or to exile. Two ― Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who had recently given birth (and come to the Red Square with a stroller!) and Viktor Fainberg, the one who had had his teeth knocked out ― were instead declared to be mentally ill and interned in psychiatric institutions, avoiding the Soviet authorities the embarrassment of putting them on trial.
I think it is worth commemorating this protest, not just to honour its participants, but also because they have something important to tell us about what it means, and what it can cost, to be free. A number of them spoke to Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. for a documentary on the dissident movement in the Soviet Union (the discussion of the 1968 Red Square Demonstration is here), and their thoughts are relevant not only to historians, or to those struggling against regimes that are generally recognized as authoritarian, but also to anyone trying to resist a stifling atmosphere of unfreedom that can exist even in the absence of overt repression, and even in the midst of widely professed belief in free expression.
Freedom has two aspects: internal and external. Free individuals are free thinkers; they do not accept received wisdom, prevailing opinions, and common sense as dogma. Free individuals are also free agents; they act consistently with their sense of right and wrong. Meaningful external freedom, freedom of action, is not possible without internal freedom, freedom of thought. But freedom of thought alone is insufficient. One might be able to count oneself as a king of infinite space while bounded in a nutshell, but not, as we know, if one has bad dreams. And one of the points that that Mr Fainberg makes in the documentary is that “bad dreams” are the inevitable consequence of not acting in accordance with one’s understanding of how one ought to act: “the biggest fear” a person can have, he says,
is fear of the past. Because if you’ve betrayed yourself in the past, if you betrayed your own dignity, you will have that worm inside you, which will eat you from inside, in the present and in the future, and you will not be able to escape it.
To be free, then, is both to think and to act for oneself, and not on the demand of authorities. Just what acting for oneself involves will depend both on the individual and on the circumstances ― sometimes, it means to worship or preach, sometime to speak or write, sometimes to get together with others on the public square and try to shame the government. All these actions, however, are in some sense public, visible, even ostentatious. To repeat, purely internal freedom, though it may be of some value, is in the long run unavailing. On the contrary, to think freely and to fail to act on these thoughts is to set oneself up for bitter shame and remorse. A free thinker will become a free agent, if only to avoid this outcome. As Gorbanevskaya put it in the documentary, the protest, for her, was a way to ensure that she would “have a clean conscience”. This is no doubt somewhat false, or at least uncalled for, modesty. Protesting, on Red Square, against a defining policy of the Soviet government was an act of incredible bravery. But it is not to slight the protesters to say that they feared a guilty conscience more than the KGB and the Gulag. On the contrary.
The Soviet authorities in 1968 knew this. This is why they took no chances. They did not just stop people from acting. They did their best to impose uniformity of thought. They never fully succeeded, of course, but they never stopped trying. They demanded that all Soviet citizens, especially educated ones, devote years to the study of Marxist “classics”; they forbade “hostile” or “subversive” book being published or even read; and they demanded loud, public, professions of commitment to the ideology and policies of “the Communist Party and the Soviet Government”, the louder and more public the more significant ― or suspect ― the target of the demands was. As Orwell understood so well, forcing people to speak in particular ways meant forcing them to think in particular ways too.
Yet paradoxically the authorities’ obsession with ensuring that all Soviet citizens thought alike gave the few who thought differently a power of their own. In Gorbanevskaya’s words,
[a] nation minus even one person is no longer an entire nation. A nation minus me is not an entire nation. A nation minus ten, a hundred, a thousand people is not an entire nation, so they could no longer say there was nationwide approval in the Soviet Union for the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
This is why it was so important for the Soviet system to crush even the relatively few people who opposed it ― and why, in a sense, their small numbers did not matter very much. Not everyone thought alike, therefore not everyone acted alike, therefore others saw that dissent existed, and started thinking and acting freely in their turn.
Free thought is thus a standing danger to any authority that wants all those subject to it to conform to its demands. Latter-day egalitarian moralists understand this as well as the Communists of yesteryear. (And, any egalitarian moralists who might be reading this: don’t tell me that you are right, or that you are redeeming the many sins of white-man-kind; the Communists also thought that they were building heaven on earth. Including when they were invading Czechoslovakia.) Hence their shamings, their online mobs, and their demands for attestations and statements of principles. They desperately want to control people’s very thoughts and beliefs, because they sense that, if people are not made to get on with the programme in their minds, they will, sooner or later, start speaking out against the programme too, call scrutiny upon it, and expose its unexamined assumptions, its logical deficiencies, and its leaps of blind faith.
This is not to say that the moralists are quite like their forbears in every respect. They (mostly) do not beat those who disagree; they they not imprison them; they do not torture them in psychiatric “hospitals”. The pressure, for now, is mostly economic and reputational. I do not mean to make light of it; I do not mean to judge anyone who thinks it is too much; I certainly do not mean to pretend that I am braver or stronger than others. When I think of those eight who went out on Red Square that day, and of the seven who did not give in to the threats and the violence ― the real violence, not just the unpleasant words ― that they were subjected to do, I do think that the demands on our strength and courage are not yet very high. But if we do not start practising being free now, we won’t be very good at it if one day we really need to.